Part 3: The Era of Reinvention
With a new barrage of music trends and subgenres forming in the wake of alternative rock’s rise, two bands that helped lead the alternative rock revolution of the 1980s were in the process of reinventing themselves for the new decade. With a lot of 80s acts finding a hard time trying to be relevant in the new decade, U2 and R.E.M. would use the new decade to start all over again. Even if both bands to drastically change their sound to stand out amidst the new wave of alternative and indie music that was happening.
Since the release of their 1983 debut Murmur, R.E.M. were this little quartet from Athens, Georgia in the U.S. that were mostly known as a jangle-pop group with a bit of a post-punk edge to their sound. By the time they released their fifth Document in 1987, the band scored their first top ten hit with the song The One I Love that shocked many in the music industry. After the album’s release and tour, the band signed to Warner Brothers Records after their contract with I.R.S. Records expired. 1988’s Green was the band’s major label debut as it was another hit proving the band wasn’t going to change it sound entirely. It was in that record that the band were also showing interest in a more laid-back folk sound.
After the tour and a break, the band returned to the studio in the fall of 1990 with producer Scott Litt to create their seventh album Out of Time. Driven by a more stripped-down sound, lush productions, and guitarist Peter Buck playing the mandolin more in the songs for the record. The album also had singer Michael Stipe sing more direct lyrics as the resulting album would be their biggest hit to date. Led by the single Losing My Religion and its exotic video directed by Tarsem Singh, the song became the band’s biggest hit to date peaking at #4 in the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. Out of Time was on March 8, 1991 to lots of acclaim as it became their biggest hit of their career selling 16 million copies worldwide.
While the band only did a handful of performances to promote the album, they opted not to tour as the band wanted a break from touring. Despite its popularity, the album was considered by some R.E.M. fans as one of their least favorites. Partly due to the song Shiny Happy People which was a top-ten hit in the U.S. charts as the song became one of fans’ least-favorite songs while the band also disliked the song as well. While R.E.M. was amazed by the success of Out of Time, the record was really a precursor to the album that many say would be their masterpiece with 1992’s Automatic for the People.
While R.E.M. had achieved their biggest success with their own reinvention, their fellow 80s counterparts U2 was on the verge of changing themselves for the new decade. The 1980s were a big decade for U2 thanks as they started out as anthemic post-punk rockers from Dublin, Ireland that scored a major hit with 1983’s War to becoming the biggest band of the 1980s with 1987’s The Joshua Tree. Just as the band was becoming huge, the band faced a backlash following the release of 1988’s Rattle & Hum documentary and album. Some felt their exploration with American music was misguided with others feeling that the band was taking themselves way too seriously. Following the 1989 Lovetown tour with B.B. King as the opening act, the band’s show in Dublin on December 30, 1989 had singer Bono stating that it was time for the band to go away for a while.
After the tour officially ended in early January, the band took a break before traveling to East Berlin before the re-unification of Germany to record the new album. With longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois serving as producers, the band was ready to record a new album but it wasn’t easy as many thought it would be. While the band recorded a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day for a compilation album in the middle of 1990, the track hinted an electronic-driven sound that the band was exploring at the time. Bono’s interest in Madchester along with guitarist the Edge’s interest in other forms of electronic music including industrial caused tension within the band.
Thinking that recording the album at the famed Hansa studio where David Bowie made his legendary trilogy of albums with Brian Eno in the late 70s would inspire new ideas. Instead, the studio was not in great shape while the difficulty to create a new musical style only heightened tensions as bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. weren’t sure what to do as Bono and the Edge were writing with each other rather that involving Clayton and Mullen. With morale at an all-time low, the band contemplated breaking up until the Berlin sessions ended in January.
With the song One being the inspirational point for the band to continue during the Berlin sessions, the band moved back to Dublin to resume recording in February of 1991 where everyone was relaxed. With Clayton and Mullen finding inspiration, the whole band and production team were on the same page as the finally finished the album in the fall of 1991. Finally released on November 19, 1991, Achtung Baby was a smash both critically and commercially as the band unveiled a darker yet rhythmic sound that proved they were still cool in the 1990s. While some of their fans were alienated by the new sound, Achtung Baby was considered to be one of U2’s crowning achievements as they followed the album with the lavish Zoo TV tour.
While both U2 and R.E.M. successfully reinvented themselves for the new decade, it allowed other 80s acts to take a chance on a new sound for the 1990s. While the synth-pop band Depeche Mode did a successful reinvention with 1993’s Songs of Faith & Devotion, others such as INXS and the hard rock band Def Leppard struggled to win their fans over with a new sound. Still, the moves that R.E.M. and U2 made from the 1980s to the 1990s proved that reinvention is the key to survive whenever a new music scene is happening. It also proved to be inspirational as the two alt-rock heavyweights got a chance to see the changes happening in the music world while still being part of what was cool at the time.
© thevoid99 2011